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Do you recognise from old family photographs anyone featured in film footage or other archive from the First World War?
I’m looking at ways to engage the public in the wonders of the First World War of a hundred years ago. It strikes me that some of the great grandchildren of the 20 million who saw the film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ in 1916 could be galvanised into helping put names to those featured in these films – who survived, who died – and what was their life story? Short or long?
Whilst specialist second hand book shops may from
time to time have specific books or partwork on the First World
War, today one off reprints from digitized catalogues make it
increasingly possible for the amateur hsitorian to research online
then purchase a book that interests them and have it infront of
them in a day or two. It may not have the look or feel of something
that would otherwise be over 90 years old, but its contents are
nonetheless fascinating. Reading a variety of sources has become
like switching channels. In time I have spent writing this I was
able to locate an eBook that ident is som of the combatants and
reer to it directly myself. ‘The Great Push’ makes extensive use of
stills or ‘grabs’ from film footage shot by Geoffrey Malins of the
Battle of the Somme. Partworks such as these fed an understandable
hunger for insight and news, whilst the hidden agenda of seeking
support for the conflict and its justification is obvious from the
ebullient language. With 50th, 90th and now the 100th anniversary
if these events upon us new generations of historians and amateur
sleuths are able to add yet more to the images, both still and
moving, that were captured at the time. As well as revisiting and
identifying the spot where a picture was taken, every effort is
made to identify any of those featured in the pictures. With the
power of tens of thousands via the Internet it is reasomable to
believe, that even 95 or more years on that yet more combatants
will be named and in so doing, as the relevant archives are so
readily available, to say who more of these people are – where they
were born and went to school, where they worked and where they
joined up, what service they have seen to date and how the war pans
out for them. The national habit has been to remember those who
died in combat, but of course all are now dead and the opportunity
therefore exists to remember a generation, not only those who took
a direct part, but those on ‘the home front’ who faced their own
trials and tribulations. I believe it is in this spirit that the
BBC is marking the events of 100 years ago.
Keep died on the 17th July 1917 in the Ypres,
Salient. He was 24. As we can identify him, we can surely provide the names of his platoon and in doing so might others look through newspapers as well as their own family photographs to see if more names can bedpntdtocfacesc97 or more years after the event?
Not only do you often come across images taken from the film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ that make false claims to their content, but authors try to confer their copyright to the material. Whilst it was common practice of the times to quite crudely add black or white highlights to a photograph in an attempt to improve clarity. In an era of Photoshop these efforts look clunky.
My immediate thought here is that over 100 years
capturing events such as this have gone full circle – we are back
to one person and his kit trying to see the action. It also strikes
me as someone who is so familiar with activity on the Western Front
and action in the trenches that he misses much of the key action:
he cannot film at night, nor can he get in amongst the action, nor
of course is there any sound. Colour adds clarity as you can
differentiate more of the detail. In any one day at the end of June
and early July, the months that interest me, how much did his
cameras see? An hour one morning, a couple the following afternoon?
It is worth thinking how much wad going on when he was mot turning
the film through the camera. The kit was cumbersome and heavy. It
weighed 5 stone. Then there were cannisters of film he strung
around his neck. He has a canny turn of phrase. He describes the
Howitzers he films as a ‘horrible frog squatting on its haunches’.
p120. I wonder if the cameraman has as much of a story to tell
given the difficulties and dangers he must face getting into
position. There are many times when he describes what he hadn’t the
means to record: the frying bacon, the boiling water, the chat
between soldiers … laughing, swaering and humming songs. p132
What does war really mean? Is this a question such filmmaking hoped
to answer. There appears to be a niavety about the entire
I’m familiar with The Battle of the Somme footage so am delighted that it is brought to life by Malins’s words describing people and events before, during and after his bouts of filming. The dressing station sounds far more horrific than he feels. He must surely have fekt sensitive about filming people as they died.
Although Kindle suggests otherwise I have read most of these. I have read Christopher Clark ‘The Sleepwalkers. How europe went to war in 1914’ twice and am now reducing copious notes down to a cribsheet or revision notes. In due course I want to generate a series of multiple-choice questions on the QStream patform and a SimpleMind mindmap. By then the info may have stuck. According to Kindle 70% read takes me to the reference section of this 600+ page book. A third complete read is likely as I feel I can trust this Cambridge professor of history to be accurate and up to date.
‘Boy Soldiers’ I have read as a paperback. I find the eBook version more versatile – not least having it in my pocket at all times to cross reference. If there is a way to interest teenage boys in the history of World War One this is it. ‘Meeting the Enemy’ I have just downloaded as Richard van Emden is an easy and authoritative voice. It’ll add colour and insight to my own grandfather’s recollections of how a ‘Jerry’ wandered into their pillbox one foggy October or November morning in 1917.
I have several books on women and the First World War – anthologies and diaries. Often revealing for the common experience rather than anything that is startlingly different.
Others I have read to hear the same narrative with a different voice.
Sean McMeekin on the July Crisis is thorough and more tightly chronological than Clark who spends more time with each country. Another way to do this might be as a kind of bibliography – each of the sixteen or so key players profiled in detail relating to decisions taken in 1914. By the time I have read Allan Mallinson the chronology and landscape of the events leading to conflict in 1914 ought to be clear in my mind. This is how I learn – multiple voices on the same material expressed in a slightly different way – what resonates are the moments and conclusions that they have in common, or something finally makes sense when I hear it expressed in a certain way, or a new insight or nugget of information is offered.
Max Hastings, understandably given his journalism background, composes his narrative like a journalist dipping into anecdotes and gossip. Whilst adding colour and noise some of the history is wrong (the dates of and significance of Russia’s preparatory and pre-mobilization plans) and very little is referenced, which I find odd as he had to get his information from somewhere. Already I am hearing a phrase or fact here and there that I recognise from documenaries and the basic and sometimes dated texts – all should be properly cited but is not. This feels like an opportunity to cash in on 1914-1918 interest. However it does offer something new – largelly what the papers were reporting, with all the selection for sensationalism or curiosity, bias, hyperbole or fog that this means.
Richard Holmes I’ve read in print. Like Lyn Macdonald I find he offers an excellent perspective from the soldier’s point of view.
Paddy Griffith comes recommended courtesy of comments in an Amazon Review. Not this book in particular, but the author and the many books he has written.
Meanwhile I colour this with the Hew Strachan inspired documentary series on the First World War (on YouTube) and others, along with the film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and visits to battlefields (Ypres) and museums.
Read on a period in history until you hear the people speak? I can listen to several hours of interviews with my grandfather – or those done with hundreds of veterans over the decades. I like my grandfather’s perspective – it was a job to be done and he wanted to get on with it until the job was done.
A couple of things I feel convinced of from the above reading:
Germany was hemmed in and ultimately left with no choice but to attack on all fronts – Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia and even France started this war.
Once in play the brutal behaviour of Austria in Serbia, and especially of Germany in Bulgaria, revealed a a national character, whether fed from the top or inculcated in the soldiers, that had to be stopped.
And the most trammeled and set upon?
So much for neutrality. Did this make Germany (and potentially France) think of Begium as neutered?
As we approach the centenerary of the First World War what will each nation have to say?
Has Germany gone quiet?
What can Serbia say?
And the Turks?
Let alone Commonwealth and Colonial peoples and nations?
What does it say about humankind and nationhood?
It’s not as if we don’t still live with the consequences of that war and the second world war.
When you were out of the line for a bit of rest you could always bet your boots on a good Salvation Army tent: writing paper and all the rest of it. You couldn’t write letters without them being checked …. don’t know what we would have done without them … excellent.
There was this pill box in Poelcapelle village itself that got a direct hit. It was completely broken. We had to clear it out, get the concrete and all the bits lying inside out … the smell from the bodies was dreadful. You had to put your gas mask on and we got some ropes and pulled the bodies out through this great hole and threw them in a shell hole … there were three of them, German officers. We bunged up the doorway with sandbags and used the other side to go in and out.
I remember being in the brick factory on the Somme at Trones Wood. There was this huge crater, this was in 1916. I was trying to boil some water. I’d set up a bit of a fire with a couple of bricks and a canteen. The smell was dreadful. So I pushed my bayonet in and there’s a dead body.
When they started the war Jerry had those helmets with a brass peak. One day I saw this spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench and I thought it would make a nice souvenir and I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get hold of it. My fingers came away with skin and hair and all the rest of it. It was a dead German.
I got one in the end.
For an insight into the life, death and frontline tactics along the Western Front controlled by British and Commonwealth troops you should begin with Lyn Macdonald’s ‘They Called it Paschendaele’. First published in 1978 it draws on interviews with some 600 veterans. I return to it often to expand on the record I got directly from my late grandfather John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson M.M. who was a corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, serving in Neuve Chapelle, Arras, the Somme and then Ypres between April 1916 and December 1917 when he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and trained to be a fighter pilot.
In 1991 he visited the Imperial War Museum where he was able to sit behind a Vicker’s Machine Gun, then the following year he visited Ypres for the 75th Anniversary – a guest of Lyn Macdonald.
More at http://www.machineguncorps.com
The big push on the big screen of picture theatres across Great Britain in 1916